Winter Wheat Provides Additional Habitat for Pheasants

Story by Lura Roti for Land & Livestock

With more than 125,000 Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres expiring in South Dakota as of Setptember 2011, and another 225,000 scheduled to expire in 2012, wildlife specialists are eager to evaluate alternative habitat for the state’s pheasant population. Winter wheat might be one solution, says Charles Dieter, professor of natural resources management at South Dakota State University.

Brian Pauly is an SDSU natural resources management graduate student who is tracking pheasant hens in Lyman County as part of a two-year study. The work is funded by the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks to better understand if pheasants use winter wheat for nesting and reproductive purposes, and how well winter wheat supports this activity. Pauly is pictured releasing a pheasant hen with a radio collar used to track the birds.

“Winter wheat is green and growing early when pheasants are looking for nesting cover,” Dieter says.
For years wildlife experts have known that in order for South Dakota’s pheasant population to thrive, they primarily need acres of undisturbed cover for nesting, brood rearing, and protection from predators.  The thousands of acres of native prairie, CRP grassland, and even well managed haylands found in central South Dakota fit the bill.
Interest in pheasants’ ability to nest in winter wheat was spurred by the recent declines in CRP acres in South Dakota as many farmers continue to convert native grassland to farmland. Although CRP and other grassland acres were diminishing at a rapid rate, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks data showed that pheasant numbers showed a slower-than-expected decline, explains Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks.
“Typically, the limiting factor to pheasant populations is available grasslands, so we expected numbers to decline as CRP acres were lost.  Pheasant populations remained relatively stable in much of central South Dakota,” Runia says. “We assumed we were getting pheasant production from other land uses. There is a lot of winter wheat production in that part of the state.”
To better understand if pheasants use winter wheat for nesting and reproductive purposes, and how well winter wheat supports this activity, South Dakota GF&P funded a two-year research project conducted by a SDSU natural resources management graduate student Brian Pauly.
“There hasn’t been a lot of research conducted in this area, and we need research to confirm our assumptions, and this seemed like the perfect project to hand off to a graduate student,” Runia says.
An outdoorsman and avid hunter, Pauly was eager to conduct research on a project that he sees as the future of wildlife management.

Pheasant hen in nest

“There is an ever-growing gap between agriculture practices and wildlife management – these two fields tend to butt heads, but they can work so well together,” Pauly says. “Anything that I can do to help close that gap I see as the future of wildlife management.”
Pauly’s study focuses on pheasant nesting habits as they relate to landscape habitat.
“I recorded if they nested in CRP, versus a winter wheat field, versus a road ditch and then we looked at things like what day the nest was started, what day the chicks hatched, how many chicks were hatched and the survival rate of the chicks,” Pauly explains.
Pauly began the research last January by capturing 130 wild pheasant hens, collecting biological measurements and putting radio collars on each bird so he could track their movements.

Baby pheasants in their nest

“To find out where they nested and discover how successful they were, we kept tabs on where they were and what they did over the course of the whole summer,” says Pauly of the project which tracked the nesting habits of native hens in Lyman County.
Jerry Mundlien, a winter wheat producer who farms near Kennebec, S.D., is very interested in Pauly’s research. Like many Lyman County landowners, Mundlien enjoys the economic benefits that come from owning land in a pheasant rich region of South Dakota. He leases acres of grassland to hunting guides each year.
“Now that so much land is coming out of CRP, it will be interesting to see what happens to pheasant populations,” says Mundlien, who feels strongly about the importance of landowners like himself, maintaining their CRP acres. “They still need habitat after the wheat’s cut.”
Ready to begin the second year of research in January, Pauly says that although the research data collected is preliminary, it seems safe to say that when it comes to nesting in winter wheat or CRP acres, pheasants aren’t choosy – about the same number of birds nested in winter wheat as nested in CRP. Nest survival rates were also similar – until harvest, that is.
“Until wheat harvest the survivability of the nests was about the same. Once wheat harvest began, the survivability dropped to zero in winter wheat fields,” Pauly says.
Pauly says most years there is enough time between the time a hen starts her nest and winter wheat harvest for her to raise her young to an age that they can fly and safely leave the wheat acres before harvest. However, during a wet spring, like 2011, many hens started their nests later in the season setting the hatch date back and putting her young at risk during harvest.
“Obviously CRP and native prairie are the best nesting habitats out there – hands-down. This was really obvious after wheat harvest,” Pauly says.
Runia is encouraged by Pauly’s findings thus far.
“We know that economics drive what farmers’ plant in their rotation. Having research that shows how important winter wheat is to pheasant populations may give some a reason to start planting it,” Runia says, adding that if the research concludes that winter wheat provides valuable habitat to pheasants, incentive programs may be developed to encourage farmers to add winter wheat to their cropping rotation.
He reiterates Pauly’s comment on the value of CRP acres.
“We don’t want this research to downplay the importance of CRP. We know how important CRP has been to pheasant populations,” Runia says.  “Winter wheat fields within a diverse landscape of CRP grasslands, native grasslands, hayland, and other crops likely represent the most benefit to pheasants.  It is unreasonable to expect winter wheat alone to sustain our pheasant populations, but our research suggests it is a valuable nesting habitat within diverse landscapes such as central South Dakota.”


Research Shows Winter Wheat also Provides Duck Habitat

Johann Walker, director of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited’s Great Plains Region, is coordinating a 3-year research project in central North Dakota and north-central South Dakota to determine if winter wheat provides ducks with secure nesting cover.
Like Pauly’s research, his preliminary data shows that winter wheat provides many of the same benefits as CRP.
“It looks like planting winter wheat is a beneficial practice for ducks, especially in landscapes where there is little alternative nesting cover,” Walker says, of the two years of data collected so far.
Walker hopes the data will help Ducks Unlimited better promote practices that are beneficial to both ducks and agriculture producers.
“We hope that it will help us make better decisions on when, where, and how to promote winter wheat as a practice to landowners in the eastern Dakotas in landscapes withboth abundant wetlands and productive agriculture land.”


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